almost comically incompetent: Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Jair Bolsonaro. “The killer clowns are the product of neoliberalism,” explains Monbiot, “even though they are not all neoliberals themselves. Neoliberalism involved a closure of political choice, and a disenchantment with politics. When politics failed, the opportunity arose for the killer clowns.”
He argues that neoliberalism has convinced us that “politics is illegitimate, democracy is illegitimate.” This is the breakdown of the connection between people – the polis – and politics.
He adds: “Politicians who subscribe to neoliberalism are not supposed to act or to alter people’s lives. They are only supposed to use the state to promote and support the market, which is the legitimate decision-making sphere. You should not expect politicians to change anything. The only thing that should change things is demand and supply.”
The adoption of the neoliberal programme by governments around the world has accelerated environmental devastation. It involved the removal of regulations – on money and on industrial processes – that briefly protected our planet. But with neoliberal economics – indeed, with classical economics – Nature’s wonders do not count, because Nature does not come with a price tag. A forest will have no value on a balance sheet except as a commodity, as timber.
The solution proposed by neoliberal economists is to give objects of Nature a price. But this only exacerbates the problem. “Neoliberalism pushes its crazy quantification everywhere,” Monbiot argues. “This is why we have this ‘natural capital’ agenda now. It’s a deeply sinister exercise: they are going to sell Nature – everything. This definitive expression of the pricing of everything is central to the neoliberal worldview. Neoliberalism cannot stand anything not to have a price attached.”
To understand how we arrived at this place, it is worth recollecting how capitalism began. Monbiot describes the birth of capitalism in terms of deception, violence, slavery and trauma. Indeed, capitalism begins by fracturing the most fundamental human connection: our connection with Nature, which becomes ‘land’ and ‘property’.
“It began in the 17th century with the Enclosure Acts in England; then we saw the policy exported to Ireland first, then Scotland with the clearances, then to the rest of the British colonies; then with the other colonial powers picking up this model and thinking, ‘We can make lots of money this way too.’ In post-colonial times we see the same model being imposed by the IMF, and powerful states imposing structural adjustments on less powerful states. It goes on today.”
He adds: “A lot of the ideological underpinnings arise from John Locke’s labour theory of property, which is that your rights to property arise from mixing your labour with the land. You start with the assumption that no one else has ever mixed their labour with the land and has ever established any property rights in that land. You start with a terra nullius. That senseless, ridiculous notion is at the heart of capitalism.”
The continued success of the neoliberal project is not inevitable. But its defeat will involve the conscious, deliberate actions of millions of people. This will involve developing an understanding of the alternatives to neoliberal beliefs. We need a new ideology based on connection: between individuals, between institutions, and between our societies and Nature. At the heart of this is education.
“Neoliberalism involved a closure of political choice”
“When you are immersed within neoliberal ideology, there does seem to be no alternative. ‘This is the state of Nature – this is how things are.’ That’s what we are constantly told. ‘Humans have always been like this.’ ‘Capitalism is an innate human characteristic; consumerism is an innate human characteristic.’ They are not. They are constructed systems of thought and practice.” We can again find lessons from history. “We live in an attention economy, and we are constantly distracted. Which is, in a way, one of the biggest problems we face. It is almost impossible now to remember that there used to be these massive self-education movements, where people would seek rigorous information and understanding, rather than random stuff fired at them on the internet. Education was seen as absolutely central to self-improvement.” Monbiot does see glimmers of hope, with “really interesting and fascinating strands” developing across our intellectual landscape. He is particularly interested in the framing of “private sufficiency, public luxury”, which is a reversal of our current capitalist model. I imagine people living in modest homes but spending their days relaxing in resplendent city parks and elaborately mosaiced public spas. He points to Jeremy Lent’s concept of an ecological civilisation as set out in his book The Patterning Instinct, and Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics.
But in developing the alternatives to neoliberalism we cannot stay confined to the library. This is what is so exciting about the explosion of Extinction Rebellion and the youth climate strikes onto the streets. This is the return of the polis to politics. The markets cannot prevent climate breakdown, but together we can. But – precisely because of the connected world we inhabit – ensuring change will be difficult. Monbiot concludes: “To challenge anything effectively is to challenge almost everything. Everything is interlinked.”
Brendan Montague is Editor of The Ecologist.
12 Resurgence & Ecologist